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11 March 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 3:43pm

Postcards from an infected world: Once Tokyo smelled of plum blossom, now it is soap

Coronavirus has hit Japanese exports, and is keeping consumers at home. Shops, bars and restaurants are quiet and Tokyo Disneyland is shut. Any hope that the faltering economy will recover this year is gone.

By Tom Feiling

For the first time in its long history, the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament, which opened in Tokyo on 8 March, is being held behind closed doors. It is the latest casualty in Japan’s struggle to contain the spread of the new coronavirus. 

At this time of year, the air in Tokyo is usually perfumed with the delicate scent of plum blossom. This year, all I can smell is hand soap. It has been six weeks since the first case appeared in Japan on 15 January. It was quickly followed by reports of shopkeepers refusing to serve Chinese tourists. There are usually plenty of Chinese tourists in Tokyo, but not any more. This is bad news for the economy, which is relying on tourism to become a growth industry. 

At the time of writing, there have been seven coronavirus deaths in Japan. The number of infections has passed 1,000, including about 700 cases aboard the quarantined cruise ship Diamond Princess.

After the authorities were accused of letting the Japanese passengers off the ship without being quarantined, unsubstantiated rumours began to swirl on social media. One was that imports of Chinese paper products were about to be banned. This wasn’t true, but it caused panic buying of face masks, tissues and toilet paper.

The Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s leading dailies, has cautioned against “a rash of lies, rumours and other forms of false information about the infection”, and the World Health Organisation has warned of the risks of an “infodemic”: too much information drowning out trustworthy sources. Yet some of the online rumours may be true: after a patient at my local hospital in west Tokyo was diagnosed with coronavirus, all the other patients were evacuated. No mention of this was made in the media, which suggests that news editors are cooperating with the government in withholding information so as not to cause panic.

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All schools are closed, which means a lot of children with nothing to do. The government is offering financial support to parents forced to take time off to look after their kids. The elderly are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 and have practically disappeared from public transport for fear of picking up germs. Some people are hoarding goods and working from home, but most are still going into work. The majority of the commuters I see on the metro wear face masks. Offices are quiet, however, for business meetings and business trips have been cancelled.

The virus has already hit Japanese exports and investment, and is keeping consumers at home. Shops, bars and restaurants are quieter than usual and Tokyo Disneyland is closed. Any hope that the faltering economy will recover this year has been snuffed out.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s greatest fear, however, appears to be the virus putting people off the Tokyo Olympics in July. When the crisis first hit, Abe was variously accused of being muddled, indifferent or simply too relaxed in his response. Since then, he has made efforts to appear more resolute and insists the games will go ahead.

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All the same, he isn’t taking any chances. On 4 March, he met separately with five opposition party leaders to ask for their support for a bill to expand the government’s emergency powers. Such legislation would give him the legal right to ask people to stay at home, allocate land and buildings for use as medical facilities, and forcibly procure goods from medicine and food suppliers.

Declaring a state of emergency is a last resort. The number of cases is still rising, but only slowly. For now, we’re in a state of limbo. It’s all strangely reminiscent of the mood of restraint that fell upon Tokyo after the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.

Read the rest of “postcards from an infected world” series here

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This article appears in the 11 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, How the world is closing down